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Christy Matta, M.A.Christy Matta, M.A.
A Blog on Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness and Stress Reduction

Does Emotion Help or Hurt Your Performance?

Christy Matta, M.A. Updated: Feb 6th 2013

Can you call to mind a time when, at the height of emotion, things just clicked? You were focused, motivated, able to recall information and were fully present in the moment. Whatever the task, whether you were catching a ball, giving a presentation or clearly articulating yourself in an argument, you were on.

sweating businessmanBut now can you call to mind another time when in the grips of emotion you couldn't think straight, acted impulsively and made mistakes. Afterwards you may have felt regret or simply been depleted.

We've all had these two different experiences. One, in which emotion seems to heighten our senses and focus our actions and the second, in which emotion confuses, contributes to rash actions and ultimately impairs our thought processes.

So what's the difference? Why does emotion sometimes bring out the best in our performance and at others get in the way?

In a recent study, Luiz Pessoa of the University of Maryland and colleagues investigated whether the impact of emotion on our thinking and our behavior depends on how intense the emotional situation. Pessoa suggests that lower levels of emotional intensity make us perform better, while higher levels impair our ability to think clearly and function well.

So, for example, if you're working on an important project at work, you performance may improve if your boss lays on a bit of pressure. But, if the pressure is intense, say for example you believe you'll be laid off if you don't do a good job, the intensity of the emotion associated with the pressure could inhibit your ability to complete the project well.

Pessoa and colleagues had subjects perform a task in a low emotional intensity situation and a potent emotional situation. They found that emotion does either enhance or impair performance. In the situations with low emotional intensity, the participants tended to do better, while in the potent emotional situation, performance declined.

The study confirmed what many of us have experienced in real life. But because we cannot always control the intensity of emotion we encounter when we have to perform important tasks, it is essential that we have skills to manage emotion.

You might consider some of the following strategies, if you're overwhelmed by emotion and need to decrease the emotional intensity you're experiencing in a situation:

1. Allow yourself to notice your experience in the moment, without getting caught in it and without reacting to it. Do this by paying attention to the events going on around you, naming the emotions you are experiencing, labeling the thoughts you are having and noticing how your body is reacting.

2. Focus your attention on your breathing. If you get distracted by thoughts, feelings, or events, refocus back on your breathing.

3. Do things that make you feel competent, self-confident, in control, and capable. Even small daily accomplishments, such as planning a healthy meal, exercising, cleaning the house, or answering routine email can give you a sense of accomplishment and offset some emotional intensity.

Emotions are a part of life. Everyone experiences them. With greater understanding of how our emotions impact our lives and how to respond to manage emotional intensity, we can live less at the mercy of emotional experiences.


Christy Matta, M.A.

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free You from Needless Anxiety, Worry, Anger, and Other Symptoms of Stress.” She is intensively trained in DBT and has designed and provided clinical supervision to treatment programs, including a winner of the American Psychiatric Association Gold Award. Matta has a Master of Arts in counseling psychology from Boston College. For more on her consultation and trainings visit her web site For more tips and mindfulness tips and strategies visit her blog

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